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After the 2024 Election, Taiwan’s Real Challenge Begins

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After the 2024 Election, Taiwan’s Real Challenge Begins

The next 4 years will test Taiwan’s resilience in the face of geopolitical rivalry, climate crisis, diminishing socioeconomic prospects, and an aging society while being led by a divided government.

After the 2024 Election, Taiwan’s Real Challenge Begins

Lai Ching-te (second from right) and Hsiao Bi-khim (right) wave to supporters at the final campaign rally before Taiwan’s presidential election, Jan. 11, 2024.

Credit: Facebook/ Lai Ching-te

Since Taiwan’s first democratic presidential election in 1996, national elections have centered on national identity and the island’s future relationship with China. At present, however, the majority of Taiwan’s population largely identifies as Taiwanese, contrasting sharply with less than 3 percent identifying as Chinese only. This shift in identity, among other factors such as China’s treatment of Hong Kong, elicited a more centrist approach from the presidential candidates in the 2024 elections, pivoting their campaign focus toward domestic policy.

The foreign policy platforms of all candidates aligned on protecting Taiwan’s sovereignty while maintaining the status quo and rejecting China’s “one country, two systems” unification formula. The historically pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) softened its stance, whereas the Kuomintang (KMT) candidate Hou Yu-ih and the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) candidate Ko Wen-je advocated for a more accommodating stance toward China but stopped short of appearing overly friendly.

In the 2024 election, marked by a robust 72 percent voter turnout, the DPP’s Lai Ching-te secured the presidency with 40 percent of the votes, but Hou with 33 percent and Ko with 26 percent trailed not too far behind. Ko founded the TPP in 2019 as an alternative to the long-established KMT and DPP. He seemed to have attracted a lot of the younger voters, a demographic that has traditionally supported the DPP, especially current President Tsai Ing-wen. This likely reflects the frustration of Taiwan’s younger generation with the establishment parties as they are directly affected by Taiwan’s toughest policy challenges, including sustainability, housing policy, and upward mobility.

All three candidates brought to the forefront domestic issues, such as unaffordable housing, stagnating wages, an aging population, energy insecurity, and unsustainable entitlements, which stem from Taiwan’s high-income trap. However, the candidates had varying approaches to addressing and funding these challenges. For instance, Lai wishes to advance the Tsai administration’s policy of phasing out nuclear energy by 2025, whereas the KMT and TPP insist on extending the lifespans of Taiwan’s nuclear reactors to meet Taiwan’s increasing energy needs.

These inter-party divisions and disagreements are significant because despite the DPP winning the presidency for an unprecedented third term, it lost its eight-year majority in the Legislative Yuan (the DPP won 51 seats, the KMT 52, the TPP eight, and pro-KMT independents two). The Lai administration will thus have a weaker mandate to enact its policies. Notably, with none of the parties bagging the 57-seat minimum required to pass legislation, policy initiatives will inevitably take longer to pass, if at all.

The election thus exposed emerging generational and socioeconomic fault lines. By allowing the DPP to gain control of both the executive and legislative branches in 2016 and 2020, voters expected the party to not only safeguard Taiwan’s autonomy but also make Taiwan a more prosperous and healthy society. This outcome of not awarding the DPP the legislative majority likely reflects the electorate’s dissatisfaction with DPP governance along with demand for stronger government accountability and tangible reforms.

Many of Taiwan’s domestic issues are features of its high-income trap that will be difficult to solve without strong political will or partisan cooperation. Taiwan’s healthcare system, despite its affordability and accessibility, is financially unsustainable, further exacerbated by a rapidly aging population. The three parties will need to agree on how to secure the necessary financial and labor resources.

All these challenges prompt the question: Can Taiwan’s political parties rise above their differences to deliver on their promises? Beijing, for one, might be glad to see a more polarized and ineffective Taiwanese government.

Three decades of democratic governance in Taiwan has only widened the gap between Taipei and Beijing. When Tsai Ing-wen entered office in 2016, Beijing closed official communication channels, continued isolating Taiwan in international society, enticed 10 countries to switch diplomatic relations from Taiwan to China (Nauru made the switch merely two days after the 2024 election), and escalated its gray-zone warfare. Yet Beijing’s immediate reaction to the 2024 election has been surprisingly muted.

This deviation from the norm might indicate that Beijing has started to recognize the limits of mere coercive measures in gaining the favor of the Taiwanese people. Besides continued economic coercion, gray-zone warfare, and disinformation campaigns, Beijing will have to recalibrate its strategy to make its Taiwan policy work. The coming years will test the capabilities of both Beijing and Taipei in managing cross-strait relations.

Meanwhile, Taiwanese society has grown increasingly skeptical of the United States, which has been enhancing its political relationship with Taiwan but without enhancing Taiwan’s international standing or offering it tangible economic benefits. Amid rising tensions with China, the United States has dedicated considerable political capital to its relationship with Taiwan through arms sales and defense packages. However, the increased number of official visits to Taiwan has been perceived as largely symbolic.

Although an initial bilateral trade agreement was signed in June 2023 under the United States-Taiwan Initiative on 21st-Century Trade, it does not provide Taiwan with real market access to the United States. Moreover, U.S, policies aimed at containing China’s economic and technological expansion, especially in the semiconductor industry, continue to negatively impact Taiwan, which relies heavily on the information and communication technology sector for economic growth. Consequently, Taiwan’s semiconductor companies feel squeezed by U.S. policy.

The next four years will test Taiwan’s resilience as a democracy in the face of geopolitical rivalry, climate crisis, diminishing socioeconomic prospects, and an aging society while being led by a divided government. The lack of a party majority in the Legislative Yuan will increase government accountability but at the risk of a legislative deadlock. This could further complicate Taiwan’s efforts to push through reforms and balance its interests between China and the United States. While the stakes are high for both China and the United States, they are even higher for the people of Taiwan.

This blog post was originally published by Asia Unbound, a publication of the Council on Foreign Relations and is reprinted with permission. The article originated from a recent discussion by Professor Syaru Shirley Lin in the Winston Lord Roundtable Series on Asia, the Rule of Law, and U.S. Foreign Policy, where she debriefed the recent Taiwan elections.